FAIRFIELD CT Jan 28 2017 — Town public schools will carry out a final wave of security infrastructure upgrades at school buildings next year, wrapping up a series of improvements following the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School and ensuing state mandates.
Fairfield is budgeted to spend a total of $4.1 million on the upgrades over three school years, according to the district’s Manager of Construction, Security and Safety Sal Morabito. Spending on small projects began in 2013, but the first major spending began in Fiscal Year 2015-2016 and will continue through 2018.
Local police and firefighters and external best practices have guided the changes, which have included new cameras, fencing and security film for school windows.
“It’s a combination of improving security, not just to actually make sure that staff and students are physically safe, but it’s also a quality of life issue because we want (students, staff and families) to feel safe,” said Lt. Edward Weihe, School Safety Division Commander. “A safe environment is a good learning environment.”
After Sandy Hook security at Fairfield schools became an immediate concern. Fairfield Police made sure an officer was at each school that day as fear and grief set in, hoping to ensure the community felt safe.
That, Weihe said, was when security upgrades began, with building vulnerability evaluations starting in early 2013. Similar regular assessments then became part of state law with Public Act 13-3, a bill addressing gun violence prevention and child safety passed in April 2013.
The act also established a state grant program, which has contributed a portion of funding to Fairfield’s security spending. Only certain projects have been eligible for grant reimbursement and the reimbursement rate for those projects varies, running between 22 and 27 percent, Morabito said.
In the 2014-2015 school year, some of the improvements began, with the first official non-recurring capital requests the following year. Police recommendations have been influenced by officers’ observations working regularly in the schools, research and best practices, guided by the School Safety Infrastructure and National Crime Prevention councils.
At the time of the Sandy Hook tragedy, public schools’ security measures varied school to school. Now security measures are more uniform, according to Weihe. After initial changes, some parents felt schools had gone from open and welcoming to somewhat closed and alienating, Weihe said, but the “pendulum kind of had to swing hard.” After initial tough looks at measures to improve, he said practices could be slightly relaxed into a working mix of safety and security in a welcoming school atmosphere.
Improving security infrastructure and working with local police and firefighters were not entirely new initiatives, but the tragedy changed how they were carried out.
“Everybody stopped, took a deep breath and did a more thorough review of it,” Morabito said. “Some of the items that had longer timelines because of costs got sped up.”
The wave of security spending in part occurred because, while a large district-wide project is usually spread over time, the district did not want any school to wait longer than another for security improvements. The bulk of upgrades were budgeted consistently across schools over a two-year timeline, according to Morabito.
“It was a conscious thought to get it all done as quickly as possible,” he said.
The final wave of upgrades was in part spurred by the all-school lockdown in October of 2015. While there was found to be no serious threat, the lockdown gave police and schools the chance to see the impact of security improvements to that point and to identify several remaining needs, such as an outdoor PA system to alert students and staff on recess or outside for other reasons.
Morabito called the lockdown a “learning experience,” after which protocols were again reviewed with town police and fire departments and adjustments made.
Beyond building security, state mandates and local focus has resulted in other changes, including increased training and the involvement of local law enforcement. In 2012, police had one school resource officer stationed at each of the two public high schools. But by the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, the department’s school safety unit was freshly in place, with its leader Weihe stationed at school district offices.
As of this school year, the school safety unit increased, adding four more officers with offices at public middle schools and the Walter Fitzgerald Campus to the officers already in place at Fairfield Ludlowe and Warde high schools. The four new officers are each also responsible for a specific group of elementary schools.
“They become a part of the faculty,” Weihe said of the community policing approach. “They become a part of the community.”
The unit also advises private schools in town on safety and security by request. It is Fairfield’s “unique” approach, Weihe said, of the team of town police that works on school safety full-time.